The drum is, of course, the cornerstone of African music, the throbbing heart of it. But the voice of the drum is a universal voice – a call to come together and celebrate, whether it is in Nigeria or Pakistan or Brazil…or Jamaica. As the article below notes, it’s a “mass activity.”
A couple of years ago, we enjoyed a wonderful day of free opera in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, lazing on the grass in warm sunlight, people watching and shouting “Bravo!” from time to time. As the program drew to a close, I heard another sound – something that seemed to grow from a group of trees in a hollow space some way below the big space where thousands had gathered for the opera. It was insistent, and continuous, and it wanted to be heard. At the end of the concert, we followed that sound, and came across a row of men, of all ages and cultures and colors, sitting on several benches and drumming their hearts out. An appreciative group of men, women and children hovered nearby, most of them moving their feet and shoulders and all of them smiling. We stopped, and listened. The drummers were so absorbed that they did not seem to notice anyone around them, except each other. Drumming had gotten a hold of them. When we left, half an hour later, they were still playing, in their own world, without stopping. (I am pausing here and searching my iPhotos for my photographic record of these drummers, but can I find them? No! Most disappointing. I will look for them and post them at a later date, as I know they are there somewhere, in the archives…)
Meanwhile, I came across this wonderful article from the equally wonderful New Yorker magazine, which sums up the universality of drumming, and the cross-cultural sharing that African drumming and dancing has brought to the world. It is written by Elif Batuman, a New York-born writer of Turkish origin, who currently lives in Istanbul, Turkey. The city of Istanbul is itself such a crossroads of history, cultures, tribes and traditions, and a city that I would love to visit. Below is the link to this article.
The first time I held an African drum in my hands was at Koç University, in a forest in the northern suburbs of Istanbul. Istanbul is not known, justly, for its highly developed sub-Saharan music scene. But Koç is a remarkable institution, with an ice rink, a celebrity Pilates coach, and a writer-in-residence, so I was only slightly surprised to learn there was also an African dance class with live drummers. One moonlit evening, I met with a colleague, a scholar of migrant narratives, in a faculty parking lot, where we transferred several goatskin drums from someone’s living room to the trunk of someone else’s car, and drove to the west campus annex, in a rolling dystopian valley full of housing developments.
In a studio just off of a multistory parking garage, we met Inci Turan, Istanbul’s first African dance instructor. (In addition to the class at Koç, she teaches twice a week at a recording studio near the city center, where the photographs in this piece were taken.) African dance and drumming are inextricably linked both to each other and to various agricultural and social events, from marriage to wrestling. That night, Inci demonstrated a harvest dance. I had never before seen such flinging of the head and shoulders, abjectly forward and exultantly back. Her outstretched arms were giving, giving, then taking, taking, generous and voracious by turns. Then there were moments of such thoughtfulness, such listening. “Listen to the ground with your right ear,” Inci says during one of the warmup stretches, and she really looks like she’s listening.
Inci currently works with a group of five drummers. Three of them played at my first class. Badji is at least a head taller than the others, with a gentle demeanor and long dreadlocks. Ibrahim is the one who always looks watchful, even angry. For weeks he yelled at me, because I was so bad at African dancing. Stamping his feet, he would dance in place, shouting: “C’est facile! Facile!” Kandioura, who wears sunglasses indoors, comes from a famous family of Guinean balafon players. He loves to play solos. They are hard to dance to. “No solo, Kandioura,” Inci sometimes tells him. “Solo, solo,” he repeats.
African drumming is polyrhythmic: conflicting rhythms are played simultaneously. Skilled dancers can move two, three, or even four parts of their bodies to different rhythms at once. A master drummer is said to be able to “make the djembe talk.” Such speech acts may be figurative or literal. The Yoruba “talking drums” can convey verbal messages over long distances. Ewe drummers are known to hold insult contests, shooting insults back and forth using specially tuned drums.
A good djembe is carved in one piece from a hollowed tree. The body is shaped like a goblet, the membrane made from the skin of a goat or other animal, preferably female. (Male goatskins have a less even texture, and smell more goatlike.) Each is individually tuned, with its own voice and personality, and is said to contain three spirits: the spirit of the tree, the spirit of the goat, and the spirit of the drum-maker. The musicians are very affectionate toward their drums. They speak the word “djembe” with great tenderness.
Carving djembe drums in Guinea.
One of my colleagues, a philosophy professor, bought a djembe. It wasn’t cheap, but in the worst case she can use it as an end table. The drummers are giving her lessons. One evening I sat with them under a tree. Lessons often take place outdoors, in remote areas, because of the noise. A cook came out from behind a nearby grilled-intestines counter, his face transfigured by admiration. He told me that he had worked as a sailor for many years, that he had seen wonderful things in Panama, and was in possession of some incredible marijuana that had been excreted by a goat in Kenya. I thought about how different my life would be if I spent more time sitting under trees learning about the djembe.
Inci Turan was born in Düsseldorf. Her father started out as a factory guestworker, studied to become a mechanical engineer, and opened one of the first Turkish schools in Germany. He later left this job, due, Inci believes, to interference by powerful political interests. When Inci tells you a story, it often involves the demonic forces of jealousy and ill will. Turkish has many figures of speech about the evil eye. When I’m with her, I find myself believing them. I want to fix amulets to her body. It’s hard to imagine any unseen dark powers not taking an interest in anyone so special.
After her family returned to Turkey, Inci graduated with honors from the math department of an Istanbul high school. She briefly played professional volleyball, then moved to America, where she studied economics at SUNY Stonybrook and worked as a consultant in New York. She played volleyball every weekend in Central Park, where she was lured one day along an unfamiliar path by the pulse of mysterious drums, as if from some secret nightclub, hidden in broad daylight. She came upon a big circle of African drummers and dancers. For hours she sat and listened to them, beaming, transfigured. She began to pursue the study of African dance all over the city, from the National Black Theatre of Harlem and the Hundred and Thirty-seventh Street Y.M.C.A. to the Djoniba Dance and Drum Centre and a series of Crunch gyms.
Inci was living in Harlem at that time with her boyfriend, Sean, a Haitian-American architectural engineer whom she had met at the Stamford bus station when he was eighteen and she was twenty-eight. (He initially told her he was twenty-four.) At Inci’s urging, Sean tried his hand at African drumming. He ended up just as obsessed as she was, and made two trips to Senegal to study with master drummers. The couple split up in 2005, when Inci returned to Turkey. A year later Sean moved to Istanbul to join her, and they got married. They recently separated, but Sean is still the head drummer in Inci’s group.
German-born Inci Turan, founder of Istanbul’s Dans Afrika, feels the drums.
When Inci first got back to Istanbul, she missed African dance terribly. There weren’t any classes, so she decided to start one herself. She and Sean recruited two more African drummers, from Istanbul’s migrant and refugee community. They ended up helping the drummers with food and rent, so for a long time the classes brought in no profit. One day the Istanbul office of Peppers & Rogers, where Inci had applied for a consulting job, invited her to run an African dance motivation retreat for its employees. The workshop was a hit. Inci and Sean went on to lead motivation and ice-breaking workshops for companies including Novartis, Sanovel, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, H & M, 3M, and Volvo.
At first, I found a certain irony in the image of West African migrants convening at Turkish resort hotels in order to rev up Big Pharma for the next productive quarter. I suppose it’s because consideration of African interests isn’t what global corporations are best known for. But Inci doesn’t see things that way. Because she and Sean started their own careers in the corporate world, and because they made a new, drum-centered life for themselves, as adults and against considerable odds, she feels that they are uniquely qualified to transmit and embody the corporate credo that any target, sales or otherwise, is attainable through hard work and what she calls a “can-do attitude.” African dance, she adds, is a mass activity—a corporate activity. It’s impossible, she says, not to feel inspired by the spectacle of three hundred employees of a catering conglomerate dancing to African rhythms played by a hundred and fifty of their coworkers on an assortment of dunduns, djembes, and Turkish darbuka drums.
The current drummers have been in Istanbul nearly a year now. Kandioura, Ibrahim, and their friend Salif came last year for a Senegalese Day festivity, and never went back. They discovered Badji quite by chance, selling knockoff watches on the street. For months after their arrival, the drummers lived in Sean’s apartment. Inci still pays for their shoes and dental bills, and books their shows. The group, which calls itself Dans Afrika, performs every week or two, at diverse venues. I once heard them play a 3:30 A.M. slot at an electronic club called Clinic to a large, mostly Senegalese audience. Inci just booked them for the Efes Pilsen One Love Festival, alongside such groups as the Kaiser Chiefs and Yuck. Business still isn’t as good as she would like. Inci has often made the rounds of sports clubs, offering to teach African dance for free, and been told that there isn’t any customer demand. “Of course there’s no customer demand,” she says. “How can they demand it if they don’t know what it is?”
When I was growing up, many of my relatives had never seen a black person before. Today, hundreds, maybe thousands of Africans live in Istanbul’s old city alone. It’s hard to imagine their lives in their human totality. Walking around with the drummers, I’m often surprised by the jovial attitude people seem to take towards them—as if to convey appreciation of some terrific joke the Africans have played on us all, just by existing. One afternoon, when Badji got into the front seat of a taxi, dreadlocks spilling out from his bulging knit cap, the driver’s face immediately lit up. “What’s this, man?” he demanded with mock sternness. “What’s all this?” Badji shrugged and smiled, as if to say: “It’s my earthly form, bro.” Badji once spent two years on Jeju Island in South Korea, playing the djembe at the African Museum. He says there’s a lot of respect for African culture on Jeju Island. Ibrahim often tells me I should come to Senegal, to see how the people live. “You will cry,” he says, repeatedly. “You will cry!” he shouts, indicating with a calloused finger the course of a tear down his face. Ibrahim doesn’t know about the classical rhetoric of persuasion. He has taught me a few words in Wolof. “Yes” sounds like “wow.” Talking on the phone, Wolof speakers sound perpetually amazed.
Although I have developed great fondness for African dancing, one of my favorite moments comes just after the end of class. The drummers pack up their djembes in quilted cases. Kandioura puts on his sunglasses. Sean wanders around with no shirt, carrying heavy objects. Inci comes out of the dressing room looking radiant in a sundress. One by one, everyone heads downstairs, each in his or her own particular fashion. The corporate glow lingers overhead, like a giant sun, then sinks below the horizon. Inci has phone calls to make, a can-do attitude to keep up. The drummers have to get to Beyazit, to do whatever they do there. The studio is on a steep cobbled street, running from the Bosphorus to the city center. We start walking up the hill together, but by the time we get to the top, everyone is headed their separate ways.